Detoxing in Turkey

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Oh, the holidays! December 2018 seemed to extend like a greasy stain on a glass window, smearing everything in a yellow tinted haze. Or maybe it was just the alcohol. Regardless, between work, travel, and a social schedule that would have been a challenge for even the likes of Harriette Wilson, I was more than a little run down on my return to the old continent where I was met by yet another swath of booze-filled social engagements in Berlin.

Famous courtesan Harriette Wilson

So as I stared down at my umpteenth glass of eggnog, contemplating chasing it with a mug of mulled wine to help drown out a tedious little Russian psychiatrist who had managed to corner me near the bar, it dawned on me that something was about to give. I couldn’t go on like this. I needed a change, a breath of fresh air, and a lot less booze.

Well, I thought, it looks like I’m heading back to the Middle East. But did I really want to cut myself off entirely from the hedonistic lifestyle I had been so carefully fostering? Did I have to go cold turkey while sweltering beneath the Arabian sun? All things, of course, are best in moderation. So what is the perfect halfway point between the excesses of Berlin and the austerity of Riyadh?

Antalya is a city of about two million located on the Anatolian coast of Turkey. Centered around a beautiful old town, Antalya draws foreigners and locals for its pristine beaches and nearby archeological sites. It’s a summer place, but the mild weather, and the fact that the city and its attractions are mostly left to the locals, gives it a certain charm during the long winter months. If any place could help get me on my feet again, Antalya should be it. Not to mention that I wouldn’t mind a glass of raki once I’ve finished mending.

Raki is
made from twice-distilled grapes and aniseed.

After checking into a cheap hotel (Turkey is remarkably affordable these days), and having my fill of kofte (nothing helps cures a month-long hangover like balls of meat), I wandered through the rambling streets of Antalya’s old town. Although the city traces its roots to the Hellenistic period, most of the structures today date from the late Ottoman period.

Working my way downhill, I eventually found myself on a cliff next to a Roman mausoleum overlooking the harbor. It was easy to imagine the triremes plying the turquoise waters along the coast, there colorful sails capturing the light Mediterranean breeze. This is what I was looking for, the peace of the sea and nostalgia of history.

I turned around and headed back up the hill already feeling the yellow haze that had clouded my brain for the last month lifting. Just a few days of this, I thought, and I will be back to normal, ready to travel, work, and maybe most difficult of all, engage in mindless small talk at wearisome parties.

As I passed through the narrow stone streets, a building caught my eye. I stopped for a moment to admire the centuries-old structure with its shallow dome. It was a hammam and operational to boot.

Divine fate, I thought. Here I was looking to rejuvenate both mind and spirit, and I happened to stumble across an old Turkish bath. Naturally, I walked inside.

Almost immediately upon entering, I found myself wrapped in nothing but a towel sitting next to a stove pipe with a glass of tea in one hand and fresh fruit in the other. Apparently, I was going to get the full treatment, although, exactly what that entailed I wasn’t precisely sure.

It wasn’t long before I was led into a marble steam room and made to wait while the vapor did its work. I was feeling good, relaxed even, as if weeks of booze was simply oozing out of my open pores. This I could get used to.

But my new found peace of mind was short lived. Soon enough an attendant ordered me to prostrate myself on a hot slab of marble while buckets of near-scalding water were poured over my body. Was this really necessary, I thought? The heat had already begun to get to me, and it wasn’t like marble is the most comfortable of materials to lie down upon.

Inside of a hammam

Things, though, were about to get worse. Opening my eyes, I spied a scantily clad Turkish man armed with a loofah approaching my nearly naked body with what I could only assume was malicious intent. Hey, I’ve seen Midnight Express. I know how this works.

Within minutes the loofah was vigorously applied to my sensitive cutis. Well, maybe not too sensitive. Considering I’ve never exfoliated, I could only imagine the years of dead skin that was being scraped off and washed down the drain.

After my flaying, I was handed a new towel and escorted out of the bath into an agreeable looking cubicle. The worst was over, I thought, but I was wrong. Again I was made to lie down, but this time there was no loofah, only the muscular arms of a Turkish man pounding my flesh and contorting my body in unnatural shapes. This went on for thirty minutes, at which point I was deposited back in front of the stove pipe with my tea and fruit, potentially a broken man.

A depiction of a hammam (19th century)

Yet, somehow (and I can’t really explain why) I felt better. I was tired, to be sure, but it was a pleasant kind of drowsiness. And despite my ordeal (which felt strangely biblical by the way) my muscles did not ache nor did my skin burn.

A little later, several other Turkish gentlemen who had undergone similar experiences sat down beside me. We weary veterans of the hammam’s machinations talked beside the stove pipe, our empty glasses of tea quickly being refilled.

In truth, this is what the Turkish hammam is all about. It is a place to relax and socialize, a place where you leave your status with your clothes in a locker and hide your vulnerability with only a tiny strip of cloth. I couldn’t’ think of a better way to recoup. Yes, I think I’m finally ready for that glass of raki.

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